Transformative Solutions for Sustainable Well-Being

Designing Effective Strategies for Addressing Our Planetary Challenges
  • Annick De WittEmail author
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Our severe environmental and social issues challenge us to think in new and innovative ways about the needed solutions. In this chapter, I argue we need to move beyond mere instrumental, linear, and reductionist approaches, toward more transformative, emergent, and aspirational approaches. Considering the nature of our global sustainability problems – often characterized as profoundly systemic, highly complex, and ultimately human-created – I use insights from three distinct academic fields in order to articulate a number of principles for effective sustainability strategies. Sustainability science urges us to engage with the intent or purpose of the system, thus shifting worldviews, mindsets, and paradigms, or inviting reflection on them. From such a systems perspective “multi-problem-solvers” are preferred. Complexity science recommends drawing in collaboration with diverse stakeholders and viewpoints, so strategies are co-created and co-owned, as well as allowing ‘emergence’ through inviting experimentation and self-organization. Positive psychology proposes supporting people to strengthen intrinsic goals and values; behave in autonomous, volitional, or consensual ways; and be mindful. This perspective also emphasizes the importance of cultivating a positive, empowering sustainability narrative, which challenges the empirically faulty - yet highly persistent - idea that hedonism leads to happiness, and which demonstrates alternative, eudaimonic routes to well-being that are both fulfilling and sustainable. I then discuss a dietary change toward more plant-based diets as an example of such a transformative solution pathway. Arguing that highly potent pathways are often overlooked in the sustainability debate, I invite reflection on the nature and characteristics of the solutions we need, and the sustainable world we collectively envision.


Sustainable well-being Transformation Climate change Sustainability science Complexity science Positive psychology Leverage points Worldviews Multi-problem-solvers Emergence Eudaimonia Mindfulness Sustainability narrative Dietary change Meat consumption 


Considering the many challenges in our world today, many people agree we are in dire need of powerful solutions that reach far, wide, and deep, and have the potential to shift the development trajectories humanity is on toward more sustainable and life-enhancing ways of being on this planet. The growing sentiment, both among the public and among experts, is that we need a “whole-systems” change, a profound, societal transformation toward ways of living that correspond more closely with ecological systems.

Yet our thinking about solutions is often not as bold, comprehensive, and aspirational as our problems require them to be. Dominant scientific discourses still address sustainability problems from largely disciplinary perspectives, often neglecting the profoundly interconnected, mutually reinforcing, systemic nature of our planetary problems (Spangenberg 2011). Frequently, there is a focus on “quick fixes” and instrumental solutions, rather than on the underpinning, ultimate drivers of current trajectories. For example, many of us may have heard about sustainability “solutions” with negative side effects more substantial than the benefits achieved (e.g., Sarewitz 2004). According to some authors, “much of what might be constituted as sustainability science fails to engage with the root causes of sustainability, and is therefore unlikely to substantially alter our current development trajectories” (Abson et al. 2016, p. 30). This complaint – that most of our problem-solving is oriented around relieving symptoms rather than addressing deeper causes – has been echoed by environmental philosophers, social thinkers, and sustainability advocates alike.

Another often-heard criticism is that many approaches are based on linear thinking, which doesn’t account for the profound complexity and unpredictability that characterizes our contemporary challenges. According to some authors, technocratic responses of planning and technical problem-solving, which are based on assumptions of order, sufficient knowledge, and certainty, are fundamentally unable to address complex issues: “Dominant efforts to address our most serious challenges waste precious resources, time, and talent. These planning-based approaches – so common across government, civil society, and even business – represent a neo-Soviet paradigm, one that is spectacularly out of step with what we know about complexity, about systems, about networks, and about how change happens” (Hassan 2014, p. xiii). Since complex challenges are characterized by the absence of a shared problem definition as well as agreement on its solutions, they demand a shift in attitude from hierarchically imposed, predefined outcomes toward participatory processes in which a shared direction collectively emerges.

Moreover, rather than being driven by an inspirational vision of a sustainable future we all share, many approaches are characterized by a reductionist problem-solving mode, coming to expression in an almost exclusive focus on technology and regulation. The underlying conception of sustainability issues appears to be one of a series of problems that need to be overcome. Dominant narratives tend to focus on reducing harm or avoiding damage, rather than on a bright and beautiful future humans can aspire to. However, arguably, sustainability is about more than reducing unsustainability. For example, Ehrenfeld (2004, p. 4) defines sustainability as “the possibility that human and other forms of life will flourish on the earth forever.” Although one may quarrel about the term forever, this definition underscores that sustainability is about possibility – about bringing forth and calling in a new reality; about creating something that does not exist yet but that we can envision and strive toward. It also underscores that sustainability is about flourishing, about a positive quality of life and the sense of well-being humans desire. In Ehrenfeld’s words (2004, p. 4):

Sustainability and unsustainability are not just two sides of the same coin. They are categorically different. Unsustainability is measurable; it can be managed, and incrementally reduced. But sustainability – the possibility of flourishing in the future – is aspirational.

As sustainability is thus about calling a new reality into being – a world in which humans flourish in accordance with the natural systems around them – our efforts toward sustainability require imagination and an inspiring vision of what that world could be. This is essential, as, in the words of Amartya Sen, “it is difficult to desire what one cannot imagine as a possibility.”

Certainly, innovative solutions are already emerging that orient around such inspirational visions. Rather than offering technological fixes, these interventions often scaffold ways of living that are not only more sustainable but also more healthy and fulfilling. They are not focused on solving a single problem, or changing a particular behavior, but can often be characterized as “multi-problem-solvers.”

Take for example permaculture, which is a system of social design principles centered around simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems. Following permaculture principles, everyone could be living in settlements that are more like gardens than cargo containers, which purify air and water, generate energy, treat sewage, and produce food – at lower cost, while connecting humans with the natural systems surrounding them (Hemenway 2009). Permaculture thus has the potential to address a variety of sustainability issues while also supporting people to thrive through connecting with nature. Research has shown connecting with nature is profoundly beneficial for humans, in terms of their well-being, health, and relationships, among others (Green and Keltner 2017). It has also been shown to coincide with a sense of environmental responsibility (Hedlund-de Witt 2013a; Hedlund-de Witt et al. 2014).

However, while permaculture has a history of successful grassroots application, and while it has generated a broad, international movement with a relatively high public profile, it has received little systematic scrutiny in the scientific literature and has been largely ignored by the mainstream sustainability debate (Ferguson and Lovell 2015). Indeed, as also Abson et al. (2016, p. 33) claim, “shallower interventions are favoured in both science and policy.” Or, as other voices express the same observation, we find ourselves “in a system that privileges reductionist approaches” (Van Beurden et al. 2011).

Therefore, it’s important to rethink and re-search what more effective approaches to sustainability could look like: What do solutions look like that address deeper causes, rather than merely relieving symptoms? What do solutions look like that collectively emerge, rather than being hierarchically imposed? What do solutions look like that orient around an inspirational vision of a sustainable future in which humans thrive, rather than just reducing unsustainability? How are these solution pathways structurally and characteristically different from more conventional approaches? What can we learn from existing examples of such approaches? In a broad sense, these are the questions I aim to explore in this chapter. That is, this chapter is intended as contemplation on what our most powerful and life-enhancing solutions could, and perhaps should, look like.

However, in order to do this, it is essential to have some understanding of the nature of the problems we are trying to address. Three central characteristics are often mentioned in analyses of our global sustainability issues. These are (1) their interconnected, systemic natures; (2) their high complexity; and (3) their ultimate causation by human assumptions, attitudes, and behaviors.

To start with the first characteristic, our many, multifaceted, global problems – from climate change to the obesity epidemic; from challenges to water, food, and energy security to extreme political polarization; from abject poverty to financial systems that thrive on perverse incentives – are profoundly systemic in their nature, fundamentally interconnected and intertwined, often mutually reinforcing each other. In order to address any single issue effectively, the larger system of issues needs to be taken into account. Some authors argue for the need for addressing these multiple crises as a whole, as a “poly-crisis,” to use philosopher Edgar Morin’s and Kern (1999) term.

Secondly, our planetary issues are nearly impossible to solve due to their high complexity. Some scientists refer to them as “wicked problems” (Hulme 2009). These problems typically have numerous causes and no clear solutions. They involve multiple stakeholders, who often disagree about the problem definition as well as its potential solutions. They require lots of people and organizations to shift their mindsets and behaviors and are characterized by psychological, cultural, behavioral, and systemic constraints. Due to incompleteness of data, complex webs of nonlinear cause-effect relationships, and the continuous evolution of involved systems, our understanding of these problems is limited, introducing high levels of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Thirdly, our global problems tend to be human-created, thus being social, cultural, and psychological in their origins. It’s a simple fact we frequently seem to forget:

Behind the world’s most difficult problems are people – groups of people who don’t get along together. You can blame crime, war, drugs, greed, poverty, capitalism, or the collective unconscious. The bottom line is that people cause our problems. (Mindell 1995, cited in Hassan 2014)

Since humans are generally their ultimate cause, actively engaging the human dimensions of assumptions, attitudes, and behaviors is essential in forging the most effective and transformative solutions. Some authors argue that a sustainable world “is not a world achieved solely by technological measures. … it is a world with more humanness, fairness, and awareness, as well as less focus on consumption” (Ericson et al. 2014, p. 74). According to some, addressing our global problems therefore demands a change in human psychology and worldviews, as much as requiring technological fixes and institutional changes (e.g., De Witt et al. 2016; Hedlund-de Witt 2013b; O’Brien 2010).

In light of these observations, I draw on insights from three distinct scientific fields, namely, sustainability science, complexity science, and positive psychology. These fields have attempted to theoretically understand as well as pragmatically approach, respectively, the profoundly systemic, the highly complex, and the human-created nature of the global issues that have come to define our contemporary world.

As I discuss more extensively in the next section, according to strands within sustainability science we need “deep leverage points” for initiating transformational change. That is, interventions or change strategies that engage with the intent (paradigms, worldviews, mindsets) and design of the system as a whole, rather than merely addressing parameters and feedbacks (e.g., Abson et al. 2016; Meadows 1999). This enables us to address ultimate drivers, thereby affecting and transforming systems as a whole. Inevitably, solutions able to engage with, and have transformational impact on, these deep drivers will affect a range of interconnected issues and may therefore be characterized as “multi-problem-solvers.” Faced with mutually interacting crises, getting to “the heart” of the system implies contributing to multiple societal issues simultaneously.

In the section thereafter, I discuss insights from complexity science with respect to how to respond to highly complex challenges, such as most of our sustainability issues. Complexity thinking underscores that since complex problems are characterized by high levels of uncertainty and unpredictability, any decision-making strategy needs to be based on a fundamental assumption of not-knowing and (retrospective) recognition of emergent patterns, rather than on predictive analyses and the assumption of order (e.g., Kurtz and Snowden 2003). This underscores the need for more distributed and participative leadership styles, experimentation, collaboration among diverse stakeholders and viewpoints, self-organization, and emergence.

As I discuss in the section on positive psychology, insights from this field point in the direction of solutions that are inherently positive and rewarding, empowering intrinsic goals, values, and motivations (Ryan and Deci 2000; Ryan et al. 2008). Solution pathways should be aspirational and dovetail with the powerful, intrinsic human motivation for a better, more fulfilling life. Thus, sustainability should not just be about solving problems but also, and probably more so, about creating the conditions under which humans can thrive, in alignment with the earth community they are part of. Practically, this means solutions should not just advance ecological or social goals but enhance human well-being, in the eudaimonic sense, thereby overcoming the empirically faulty – yet still widespread – idea that sustainable lifestyles are based on self-sacrifice and the negation of one’s own needs. Empirical research shows that, in many ways, the opposite is true.

See Table 1 for a conceptual overview of the central features of these different approaches to sustainability. After having laid out the tentative principles for transformative, emergent, aspirational solutions, I use these principles in the section “Exploring Transformative Solutions for Sustainable Thriving” to analyze an example of what could potentially be such a transformative solution pathway, namely, a dietary change toward more plant-based diets. I end with a discussion and conclusion in the last section.
Table 1

A conceptual overview of central features of different approaches to sustainability. Discrete, localizing, time-bound issues may call for instrumental, linear, and reductionist solutions. However, such a problem-solving approach tends to be rendered ineffective when confronted with the highly systemic, complex, and human-created nature of many of our global sustainability issues, including climate change. For those issues, transformative, emergent, and aspirational approaches appear to be more commensurate with their problem set and thus tend to be more effective.

Our planetary issues are

Our mainstream solutions are

More commensurate, effective solutions would be



 Limited in scope, disciplinary focus

 Focused on relieving symptoms


 “Multi-problem-solvers,” transdisciplinary

 Focused on addressing ultimate causes

Highly complex


 Paradigm of planning and control

 Focus on predefined, hierarchically imposed, concrete goals and outcomes


 Paradigm of experimentation and self-organization

 Focus on collectively emerging, collaborative, innovative solution pathways



 Reductionist “problem-solving” mode; negative, non-engaging narrative

 Almost exclusive focus on technology and regulation


 Integrative “enhancing thriveability” mode; positive, engaging narrative

 Focus includes human well-being and intrinsically motivated sustainable behavior

Sustainability Science: Pathways of Systemic Transformation through Engaging “Deep Leverage Points”

Sustainability science is an emerging field of research seeking to understand the fundamental character of interactions between nature and society. It studies the complex, dynamic, and continuously evolving interactions between natural and social systems and how they affect the challenge of sustainability – meeting the needs of present and future generations while substantially reducing poverty and conserving the planet’s life support systems (Kates et al. 2001). As Weinstein (2010, p. 2) formulated the overarching research question of the field: “At multiple scales and over succeeding generations, how can the earth, its ecosystems, and its people interact toward the mutual benefit and sustenance of all?”

As opposed to the “value-free” stance of the natural sciences, sustainability is a normative ethically justified concept, describing a state of economy, society, and environment considered optimal. Sustainability science is therefore characterized more by its purpose than by a common set of methods or objects (Spangenberg 2011) and, as such, must be aimed at action and “real-world” solutions (e.g., Kaufmann 2009). However, since the concept of sustainable development does not articulate what needs to be sustained, developed, or how, it is fundamentally intersubjective and intercultural (Hedlund-de Witt 2014). This makes it essential to consider a plurality of worldviews that directly interact with people’s notions of the quality of life they like to see sustained and/or developed (see also De Vries 2013).

While the field started out as an advanced form of complex systems analysis, over time, this descriptive-analytical, more disciplinary-based mode has been broadened with a more transformational and transdisciplinary approach (Spangenberg 2011; Wiek et al. 2012). In the words of De Vries: “A transdisciplinary approach is called for, in which the quantitative and the qualitative, the natural and the social and also theory and practice (or science and policy) are reconciled and creatively combined. Such an integrating and synthesising approach deserves the name sustainability science” (2013, p. 4, italics in original).

In the context of such more transformational approaches to sustainability, it may be useful to revisit Donella Meadows’ (1999) well-known concept of leverage points. Leverage points are places in complex systems where a small shift may lead to fundamental changes in the system as a whole. In the most basic sense, a system is any group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent parts that form a complex and unified whole, organized around a specific purpose (De Vries 2013). Planet earth is a system, as is every human being. A family is a system, as are the activities involving the production, processing, transportation, consumption, and disposal of food (i.e., the food system). System dynamics are highly complex because they encompass the interaction of global processes with ecological, social, cultural, and economic characteristics of particular places and sectors and integrate the effects of key processes across the full range of scales from local to global (Kates et al. 2001). Moreover, system dynamics operate not only within systems but also between them (e.g., changes in the global food system impact the earth system and vice versa).

In considering how to influence the behavior of a system, Meadows (1999) identified 12 leverage points ranging from more “shallow” leverage points – places where interventions are relatively easy to implement yet bring about little change to the overall functioning of the system – to “deep” leverage points, which are generally more difficult to alter but potentially result in transformational change (see Fig. 1, and also Abson et al. 2016). The deepest leverage points involve the intent characteristics of the system, which relates to the dominant values, norms, and goals, and the underpinning paradigms out of which the system arises. In other words, these deep leverage points address the purpose of the system, which defines it as a discrete entity and provides the integrity for holding the different parts together. Meadows (1999) in her famous essay:

People who manage to intervene in systems at the level of paradigm hit a leverage point that totally transforms systems. You could say paradigms are harder to change than anything else about a system, and therefore this item should be lowest on the list, not the highest. But there’s nothing physical or expensive or even slow about paradigm change. In a single individual it can happen in a millisecond. All it takes is a click in the mind, a new way of seeing. Of course individuals and societies do resist challenges to their paradigm harder than they resist any other kind of change.

Fig. 1

From 12 leverage points to four system characteristics. (Figure adopted from Abson et al. 2016, p. 33, 1999, p. 11)

From a systems perspective, seemingly “failing” systems may in fact understood to be well-functioning systems that are designed and have emerged out of a purpose society at large no longer subscribes to. Take, for example, our global food system. From the perspective of sustainability, food security, and human health, the current, dominant food system is generally considered highly problematic. Yet when we consider the purpose it has evolved out of, which can arguably be characterized in largely economic terms (e.g., maximization of profits, increase of yields, lowering of costs), the system may seem to be thriving rather than failing. Thinking about systemic change from an understanding of deep leverage points may therefore result in entirely different research questions being asked and different policy arrangements and intervention designs being pursued. As Abson et al. (2016, p. 33) state:

… shallower interventions are favoured in both science and policy. For example, most high profile work on food security has focused on issues of food production (e.g. Foley et al. 2011). Such a focus emphasises material flows and buffer stocks, rather than deeper issues such as the rules, structures, values and goals that shape food systems. … questions such as “is the global food system oriented to provide food security for all?” and “if not, how can its intent be changed?” have rarely been asked by scientists. Yet it is these questions that address the more fundamental challenges, and provide input to thinking about deeper leverage points.

As these authors argue, “many sustainability interventions target highly tangible, but essentially weak, leverage points (i.e. using interventions that are easy, but have limited potential for transformational change). Thus, there is an urgent need to focus on less obvious but potentially far more powerful areas of intervention” (Abson et al. 2016, p. 30). This insight – that in order to get optimal leverage, we need to focus on the deepest leverage points – may be seen as key to designing effective interventions for sustainable transformation.

Next to the importance of engaging the intent of the system, a systems perspective reveals we need solutions that generate benefits addressing multiple societal issues at the same time. That is, we need “multi-problem-solvers.” Because of the complex interdependencies in our earth system, issues tend to occur in relation to each other. What may seem like an isolated problem is often part of an interconnected network of issues. Changes in one system tend to impact changes in other systems. Effectively addressing any single issue therefore means we need to consider the larger systems this issue interacts with and address it in this broader context.

Moreover, because of the interconnected set of circular relationships that characterize systems, feedback loops need to be taken into account. Feedback occurs when outputs of a system are routed back as inputs as part of a chain of cause and effect that forms a circuit or loop, thereby creating the possibility of self-reinforcing cycles. When the direction of reinforcement is desired, we refer to “virtuous cycles”; when the direction is undesired, we refer to “vicious cycles.” An example of a vicious cycle is the global rising of temperature due to climate change, resulting in the melting of permafrost and therefore the release of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, which in its turn exacerbates global warming, to then result in more permafrost melt and thus more release of methane, and so on (Schuur et al. 2015).

Another key principle for sustainability interventions is therefore to design them in such a way that self-reinforcing feedback loops are generated in directions we desire (e.g., sustainable transformation). In practice, this means that ideally the benefits as generated by these interventions should mutually support, enhance, and reinforce each other, thereby creating virtuous cycles that accelerate their positive impact. Consciously designing our interventions with the transformative power of virtuous cycles in mind may be of essential importance in order to address the complexity and interconnected nature of our current “poly-crisis.”

Moreover, for these solutions to be truly effective, they need to potentially have a global reach and impact. This means they need to be transferable and scalable, with all the systemic complexities and cultural challenges associated with that. Studies of transformational sustainability projects have revealed a tension between understanding the complexity and specificity of a case in its real-life context while also contributing to a common body of theoretical knowledge on generalization and generic principles. In the words of the researchers (Wiek et al. 2012, p. 19):

Even if research led to actionable knowledge, deficits in applicability and synthesis undermined its value. A clear focus on small-scale (local) units and a close link to the actual implementation … are favorable factors. Yet, they do not guarantee the transferability or scalability of the solution options generated. Additional research efforts are needed to overcome applied research with one-case solutions towards the aspired transformational research that generates widely applicable solution options.

While widely applicable and scalable solutions are indispensable in a profoundly interconnected world facing systemic challenges of planetary proportions, the complexities involving such a transfer and implementation of solutions are not to be underestimated. That is, also the most potent solution options require decisions and political willingness as well as adaptation to the specific (e.g., economic, cultural, geographic, institutional) context of implementation. While I do not aim to cover these complexities here, transferability and scalability are important principles that need to be considered in our understanding of more effective and transformative solutions.

Another consideration for designing transformational sustainability solutions is the potential risks and unintended consequences or negative side effects involved with their implementation. As elaborated above, feedback loops can operate in both “virtuous” and “vicious” directions, and larger systemic consequences of local actions and interventions are frequently not (fully) overseen beforehand. In fact, as we have seen in the past decades, what some propose as viable sustainable solutions are by others seen as environmental problems in their own right, often due to latent risks or side effects.

For example, certain groups advocate for the further industrialization of agriculture, supported by genetic modification of crops, with the aim of sustainably feeding our growing world population. However, for others this pathway is itself a threat to the environment (e.g., Levidow et al. 2012). And while some see nuclear energy as a sustainable form of energy production, for others the waste products and risks associated with this technology are themselves considered environmental hazards. The production of biofuels is another well-known example of a highly controversial sustainability solution pathway, as latent risks and negative side effects may override its positive benefits.

This situation has led to many environmental issues and their potential solutions becoming highly controversial and politicized, with not only political and social actors deeply divided but scientists as well, arguably leading to increasing cultural polarization and gridlock and stalling effective international efforts and policies (Sarewitz 2004). Due to the systemic and complex nature of our sustainability challenges, solutions with few risks and negative side effects are preferable.

Complexity Science: Inviting Experimentation, Collaboration, and Emergence for Transforming Complex Systems

Contemplating the nature of our global challenges, many authors argue for distinguishing between fundamentally different types of problems, such as between “complex” and “complicated” ones (e.g., Kurtz and Snowden 2003; Snowden and Boone 2007), between “wicked” and “tame” (e.g., Grint 2010), and between “complex adaptive” and “technical” challenges (e.g., Hassan 2014). As all these authors argue, while the default approach is to address sustainability issues as complicated, technical, or tame problems, it may be more accurate and effective to address them as complex or wicked problems. According to Heifetz et al. (2009), “confusing complex, adaptive challenges with technical challenges is a classic error.”

The origin for this line of thinking can be found in complexity science, which differentiates the qualities of complex adaptive systems from mechanical systems. A complex adaptive system is a system in which a perfect understanding of individual parts does not automatically translate into a perfect understanding of whole-systems behavior. In other words, a complex system is “more than the sum of its parts” (Snowden and Boone 2007). Its behavior is fundamentally different to, and cannot be predicted from, the behaviors of its constituent agents (e.g., we cannot predict behaviors of a crowd from individual behavior) (Van Beurden et al. 2011).

These systems are complex in the sense that they are dynamic networks of interactions. They are adaptive in the sense that individual and collective behaviors mutate, evolve, and self-organize in response to (collections of) events. Examples of complex adaptive systems include the biosphere, forests, reefs, stock markets, the immune system, humans, organizations, and communities (Van Beurden et al. 2011). Complexity science is therefore concerned with problems that are dynamic, unpredictable, multidimensional, and characterized by nonlinearity (in contrast with more straightforward problems, characterized by linear “cause-and-effect” relationships).

Since our sustainability problems are highly complex, we need to adequately account for and respond to that complexity in our intervention designs and leadership styles. Not doing so may create new, unforeseen issues, as mechanistic interventions may precipitate unexpected problems by stimulating latent feedback loops within the complex web of cause and effect (Van Beurden et al. 2011). Also, the “emergent,” self-organizing characteristics of complex adaptive systems highlight the importance of context and the limitations of linear program delivery (Keast et al. 2004).

In the leadership and management literature, the Cynefin framework is used for addressing complex challenges. Especially when used as a sensemaking tool, this framework can help practitioners understand the level of complexity of issues, identify appropriate strategies, and avoid the pitfalls of applying reductionist approaches to complex situations (Van Beurden et al. 2011). Cynefin, pronounced ku-nev-in, is a Welsh word that signifies the multiple factors in our environment and experience that influence us in ways we can never fully understand. The framework has now been applied to knowledge and strategy management, research, policy making, and leadership training (Snowden and Boone 2007).

The Cynefin framework (see Fig. 2) sorts the issues facing leaders into five contexts defined by the nature of the relationship between cause and effect. Known (or simple) and knowable (or complicated) contexts assume an ordered universe, with perceptible relationships between cause and effect, while complex and chaotic contexts are unordered, with cause-and-effect relationships only appearing coherent in retrospect. The ordered world is the world of fact-based management; the unordered world represents pattern-based management. The fifth context, situated in the middle of the figure, is referred to as disorder and applies when it is unclear which of the other four contexts is predominant (Kurtz and Snowden 2003).
Fig. 2

The Cynefin domains. (Adopted from Kurtz and Snowden 2003, p. 468). Courtesy of International Business Machines Corporation, © (2003) International Business Machines Corporation

Complicated problems or technical challenges are characterized by clear cause-and-effect relationships, though extensive analysis and expertise may be needed for understanding them. Although such issues are complicated, they can be analyzed and assumptions of order and rational choice generally hold (Kurtz and Snowden 2003). Some call this the domain of the “known unknowns,” and in more general terms, the knowable domain. That is, we know what we don’t know.

In contrast, complex challenges are characterized by intricate webs of nonlinear cause-and-effect relationships across multiple scales. They have unpredictable, emergent properties, high levels of uncertainty, and the potential for feedback loops that may rapidly precipitate catastrophe. Although coherent cause-and-effect relationships exist, they defy adequate categorization or analytic techniques (mainly due to the number and complexity of agents and interactions). Some call this the domain of the “unknown unknowns” or the complex or unknowable domain. That is, we don’t know what we don’t know.

Hassan (2014, p. 20) describes the difference between complicated and complex challenges as follows:

An example of a technical challenge is sending a man to the moon. The problem is clearly defined and the solution unequivocal. Implementation may require solving many difficult problems, but the desired outcome is plainly understood and agreed upon. In contrast, multiple perceptions of both the problem and the solution are characteristic of complex systems. … Complex challenges are therefore dynamic and can change in unexpected ways over time, whereas technical challenges are relatively stable and static in comparison.

Therefore, rather than predicting patterns, complexity theory studies how patterns emerge through the interaction of agents, allowing one to make sense retrospectively. Generally, “emergence … refers to the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns, and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems. Emergent phenomena are conceptualized as occurring on the macro-level, in contrast to the micro-level components and processes out of which they arise” (Goldstein 1999, p. 49). That is, as complex adaptive systems are more than the sum of their parts, something new arises, emerges, out of the whole (macro-level), which could not be predicted by its parts (micro-level).

Since sustainability issues are mainly found in the complex domain, and require different, often counterintuitive, responses, I concentrate here particularly on that context. The decision model in complex contexts is to create probes to make patterns or potential patterns more visible before we take any action (Snowden and Boone 2007). That is, rather than analyzing with the aim to predict what will happen (as is appropriate in complicated contexts), we probe with the aim to reveal what is emerging. Probes are experimental interventions that allow one to see how the system responds to change and input. Examples are genuine engagement with communities; skilled facilitation to enable agreed priority areas; and pilot projects or prototypes that experiment with new courses of action and collaboration.

Understanding the nature of emergence naturally translates into a preference for more participative and distributed leadership styles and “bottom-up” approaches, which are grounded in the experience that “we don’t know” and honor the innovative potential of allowing self-organization. This is in sharp contrast with more hierarchical “command and control” styles and “top-down” approaches. In the words of Grint (2010, p. 171):

Tame [or complicated] problems might have individual solutions in the sense that an individual is likely to know how to deal with it. But since Wicked [or complex] Problems are partly defined by the absence of an answer on the part of the leader then it behooves the individual leader to engage the collective in an attempt to come to terms with the problem. In other words, Wicked Problems require the transfer of authority from individual to collective because only collective engagement can hope to address the problem. The uncertainty involved in Wicked Problems imply that leadership, as I am defining it, is not a science but an art – the art of engaging a community in facing up to complex collective problems.

Complex problems ask us to assume that no one has the solution in isolation and to acknowledge that the problem is of a systemic rather than of an individual nature, so that it cannot be caused by or solved by a single aspect of the system. A highly collaborative approach to group function is therefore desirable, and the more diverse the partners, representing a multiplicity of perspectives, the better a system can be engaged and appropriate probes developed (e.g., Snowden and Boone 2007; Van Beurden et al. 2011). This also means we need to involve stakeholders representing different worldviews, as they tend to understand the problem differently, and propose different solutions (De Witt 2015; Hedlund-de Witt 2014).

Analytic techniques appropriate to the ordered domains are inadequate here, while narrative-based sensemaking methods are particularly helpful (Snowden and Boone 2007). Or, to put it differently, addressing complex problems is more about asking the right questions and less about providing the right answers (Grint 2010). After probing, we need to “sense” which initiatives are useful in order to “respond” by amplifying and resourcing them (and disrupting those that are undesirable). The aim is to develop open-minded observation rather than hasty action based on preconceived ideas and the entrained patterns of past experience.

An important sidenote is that problems, once identified as sitting in a certain domain, do not necessarily stay there. In fact, examining transitions at boundaries between the domains is key to facilitating intervention work. An issue can shift across a boundary as a project progresses, or context changes. For example, aspects of a complex issue may shift into the ordered domains for scientific “unpacking” or for implementation of a “best practice” strategy (Van Beurden et al. 2011). Or, issues may shift from chaotic to complex, after some stability is established as a result of initial “rapid response” interventions. The task is thus to use strategies and approaches appropriate to the context or domain an issue manifests itself in.

Thus, there are a number of aspects we need to consider when applying these insights with the aim of developing effective sustainability interventions, strategies, and approaches. In the first place, our change strategies need to allow for self-organization and emergence, rather than attempting control in a top-down manner. In practice, this may, for example, mean that governmental policies primarily orient around facilitating sustainable trends, projects, and approaches emerging from society. Secondly, our change strategies need to be based on collaboration with a rich diversity of stakeholders and viewpoints, thereby overcoming the tendency to primarily engage people who share our worldviews, concerns, and priorities and avoid those who think differently.

These shifts – from technocratic, command- and control-type approaches toward approaches that actively invite collaboration, experimentation, and emergence – demand great flexibility, willingness, openness, and somewhat of a paradigm or attitude shift on the part of leaders, organizers, and policy makers. The leadership field attests to the importance of this shift, as a substantial amount of leadership books have been written in the past decade or two with the aim of facilitating leaders in making this transition toward more “participatory,” “distributed,” “servant,” “adaptive,” “co-creative,” and “agile” forms of leadership.

Next to solution pathways needing to be more transformational and emergent, they also should be more “aspirational,” which will be further discussed in the next section on the lessons emerging out of the field of positive psychology.

Positive Psychology: Cultivating Eudaimonia and Harnessing the Power of Intrinsic Motivation for Sustainable Well-Being

The happy man both lives well and does well. – Aristotle.

At present our global challenges may seem overwhelming or depressing to many people, with the immensity and formidability of these issues discouraging conscious action. Moreover, culturally undesirable impressions exist of environmentalists as living simple, barren lives, defined in a negative, self-sacrificing manner and characterized by a gloomy outlook on the world. More generally, the dominant sustainability narrative is often characterized by what we should or shouldn’t do as well as the disastrous impact of what we are already doing – which is often not experienced to be inspiring or engaging. And while all of us search for “the good life” in our own ways, for many that good life seems to be in conflict with a life that is also sustainable and environmentally conscious. These factors may therefore put substantial limitations on the degree of public support for, and engagement with, sustainability issues at large, hampering constructive change on all levels.

In this section, I therefore explore the insights of positive psychology, a fairly young, yet rigorously empirical field of psychological inquiry and research, which focuses on the well-functioning, development, and flourishing of human beings, rather than on their illnesses, pathologies, and distortions (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi 2000). The field departs from a conception of human nature as the progressive unfolding of innate potentials and an objective of facilitating positive, healthy growth. As we will see, empirical results from this field shatter the “myth” that “a good life isn’t green, and that a green life isn’t good.” In fact, they demonstrate that pro-social and more sustainable attitudes and lifestyles coincide with human flourishing, while ecologically destructive attitudes and lifestyles correlate with a lack of psychological health and well-being. Perhaps, challenging the faulty perception that sustainable lifestyles are based on sobriety and self-sacrifice, while highlighting the positive link between such lifestyles and quality of life, may be needed to elicit a more widespread engagement with our ecological issues.

In their quest for understanding the nature of human flourishing, positive psychologists have developed a model of eudaimonia, based on extensive empirical testing and elaboration (Ryan et al. 2008). While the concept of eudaimonia originally stems from Aristotle, it is just as relevant in today’s world, as it may suggest important alternative routes to individual and societal wellness and thereby may play a critical function with respect to economics, social policies, and sustainability interventions (e.g., Ryan et al. 2008).

Eudaimonia is generally defined as “living well,” in the sense of living a complete human life, in which one realizes valued human potentials. Eudaimonic approaches to wellness are described by pursuing goals that are intrinsically valued and by processes that are characterized by autonomy and awareness. In contrast, “hedonic” approaches focus on “feeling good,” interpreted as the occurrence of positive affect and the absence of negative affect. That is, whereas eudaimonic approaches focus on the content of one’s life, and the processes involved in living well, hedonic conceptions focus on a specific outcome, namely, attainment of pleasure and avoidance of pain.

Rather than a psychological state or outcome, eudaimonia thus refers to a way of living – a way of living that is focused on what is intrinsically worthwhile to human beings. Intrinsic values are first-order values, meaning they are irreducible to other values and do not exist for the sake of other values. Extrinsic aspirations, on the other hand, are pursued as a means to other goals. For example, somebody may strive for wealth or fame, because of the freedom that wealth promises to provide or the admiration associated with fame. That is, goals like wealth, fame, image, and power are often sought because they are instrumental to other goals. In contrast, goals like personal growth, affiliation and intimacy, community contribution, and physical health tend to refer back to themselves; i.e., people strive for them because they enjoy these values in their own right.

This distinction has proven highly potent for an empirically based understanding of human well-being. Results revealed that the strength of intrinsic relative to extrinsic aspirations was positively related to a host of well-being indicators, including self-actualization, positive affect, and vitality, and negatively to indicators of ill-being, including depression, negative affect, anxiety, and physical symptoms (Ryan et al. 2008). Similar findings have been found cross-culturally (e.g., Grouzet et al. 2005). The researchers suggest that the reason intrinsic and extrinsic aspirations are differently related to psychological health and well-being is the degree to which they are linked to the satisfaction of the basic, psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness (e.g., Ryan and Deci 2000). These needs are understood to be innate and universal, essential for an individual’s psychological health, and when satisfied allow optimal functioning and growth.

One may wonder why people would pursue extrinsic goals while it is demonstrably not supporting their overall health and happiness and is thus not in their self-interest. Psychologists understand these extrinsic goals as substitutes for underlying needs that were thwarted (Grouzet et al. 2005; Ryan 1995). That is, these goals have their salience because they attempt to serve something more basic and intrinsic, even though the person may not be conscious of the connection. Seeking fame because one desires to feel loved is an indirect (and, as the research shows, generally ineffective) route to the intrinsic value of love and connection. When that intrinsic need was left unsatisfied, i.e., due to factors in one’s upbringing, people start to pursue more indirect, extrinsic pathways in an attempt to get their needs met. In that process, individuals frequently become preoccupied with second- and third-order values that are derivative and now disconnected from the deeper intrinsic needs that were unsatisfied (Ryan et al. 2008). In other words, pursuing extrinsic goals can be seen as a psychological defense mechanism, that is, a way of coping with a reality in which one’s fundamental human needs were thwarted.

Although eudaimonia is not defined by a focus on specific outcomes, it is associated with numerous outcomes, which include hedonic happiness as typically assessed but also includes a fuller, more stable, and enduring type of happiness than that obtained when one’s goals are more directly hedonistic. Among these enduring positive outcomes are a sense of meaning, subjective vitality, higher quality relationships, and better physical health indicators, especially with respect to symptoms related to stress (Ryan et al. 2008). Beyond these, researchers have started to map out additional kinds of well-being outcomes, showing that eudaimonic individuals (Ryan et al. 2008, pp. 162–163):

… have high levels of inner peace, as well as frequent experiences of moral elevation and deep appreciation of life; feel connected not only with themselves but also with a greater whole that transcends them as individuals; have a sense of where they fit in to a bigger picture and are able to put things in perspective; and describe themselves as “feeling right” (as opposed to “feeling good,” the state that hedonically oriented individuals seem to pursue).

It is therefore not surprising that living well as defined in the eudaimonic sense also contributes to social and environmental goals. In fact, multiple studies have found correlations between (eudaimonic) happiness and sustainable behavior (Brown and Kasser 2005; Corral Verdugo et al. 2011; Jacob et al. 2009). The emerging evidence suggests that people high in eudaimonia are likely to be more socially responsible and often derive a sense of well-being from contributing to the greater good. These studies attest that promotion of eudaimonic living may be better for a society as a whole, insofar as its members show more care, concern, and responsibility in their actions (Ryan et al. 2008).

This body of work thereby reveals that when humans flourish (in the eudaimonic sense), they tend to display more pro-social and pro-environmental behaviors and attitudes. The research thus suggests that, put simply, psychologically healthy and happy human beings tend to also be “good for the planet.” As argued above, these findings are in sharp contrast with dominant assumptions in the environmental debate, in which “the good life” is frequently juxtaposed with living sustainably, and happiness and ecological care are portrayed as conflictual pursuits (see e.g., Brown and Kasser 2005). Sustainable behavior is often conceptualized to be emerging from negative emotions, such as fear, guilt, or shame and as having negative consequences, like discomfort, inconvenience, and sacrifice (Corral Verdugo 2012).

However, this association between unsustainability and happiness seems to stem from a hedonic approach to wellness. Indeed, attempts to maximize pleasure and avoid pain are often associated with selfishness, materialism, objectified sexuality, and ecological destructiveness. Empirical research confirms this idea. For example, Brown and Kasser (2005) found that people embracing the extrinsic goal of materialism consumed more and left bigger environmental footprints. Other studies found that people with materialistic, extrinsically oriented worldviews were more likely to display instrumental attitudes toward nature and less sustainable lifestyles, while people with more intrinsically oriented worldviews correlated positively with pro-environmental attitudes and lifestyles (Hedlund-de Witt et al. 2014).

The idea that altruistic and pro-social behaviors are based on a negation of one’s self-interests is still widespread. However, this body of research shows that people pursuing hedonic lifestyles are, strictly speaking, doing this against their self-interest, as such lifestyles are associated with less happiness and even ill-being. In contrast, people pursuing eudaimonic approaches to happiness prove to be better equipped to take care of their own interests by fulfilling their basic, psychological needs.

Understanding hedonic attitudes and behaviors as psychological defense mechanisms opens up a more compassionate perspective, as well as new potential pathways for responding to them. Rather than “guilt-tripping” and blaming people for materialistic or social or ecologically destructive behaviors and attitudes, approaches that support people to find more constructive and effective ways of fulfilling their psychological needs may prove more helpful and rewarding. Moreover, challenging the faulty cultural perception that social and sustainable lifestyles are based on a sacrifice and negation of one self could have a substantial impact on broadening social involvement in sustainability.

The lessons we can draw from decades of research into human flourishing is thus that facilitating more eudaimonic lifestyles will powerfully serve our aim for sustainable transformation in a number of ways. As the research shows, eudaimonic individuals are more inclined to act in pro-social ways, which therefore generates a multitude of social and environmental benefits. Moreover, facilitating eudaimonic living implies the “unleashing” of human potential and creativity, which may result in major ripple effects and positive feedback loops in terms of new initiatives and innovations for a wide range of social and sustainability causes.

On the societal level, facilitating eudaimonic lifestyles means forging and enabling a new pathway toward sustainable well-being. Thereby it provides an important counterweight to the pathways almost incessantly promoted by the increasingly globally dominant, neoliberal, market-based paradigm, which tends to emphasize extrinsic values and motivations, with destructive consequences for the environment:

Consumerism is prompted by continuous exposure to desire-creating advertisements, which often attempt to promote insecurity in order to create a sense of need. Moreover, the winner take all atmosphere associated with the values of a competitive market economy can crowd out altruism, sense of community, and other prosocial attitudes. It seems that the eudaimonic life is continuously threatened by the individualistic attitudes associated with such economies, whereas hedonic well-being has a much closer fit with the capitalist ethic. (Ryan et al. 2008, p. 165)

In fact, one could argue that capitalist marketing is specialized in selling the illusion of extrinsic goals and values as able to fulfill people’s deeper, intrinsic needs. That is, commercials seduce us to think we are not just buying a car; we are buying freedom. We are not just buying soda; we are buying social connections. At the same time, policy makers, campaigners, and social scholars seem increasingly aware that competitive individualism and hedonic happiness for the masses will lead to, and ultimately be compromised by, an unsustainable environment, all the while not fulfilling its promise of enhancing happiness.

For sustainability interventions to be able to offer deep, transformational changes, they should thus facilitate and enhance human well-being in the eudaimonic sense. Optimally, interventions should support people to live well, grow, thrive, and unleash their potential. At the very least, they should not be in conflict with that. Practically, this means these solutions should be inherently positive and rewarding for people to engage in and thus advance their own life circumstances (health, well-being, community connections, et cetera), while also contributing to the larger whole. While the answer to how we can we use these principles in our intervention design is not easy to give, the research suggests to follow three rules of thumb (Ryan et al. 2008):
  1. 1.

    Support people to strengthen intrinsic goals and values such as health, (contribution to) community, affiliation and intimacy, personal growth.

  2. 2.

    Support people to behave in autonomous, volitional, or consensual ways, rather than relying on controlled and heteronomous ways.

  3. 3.

    Support people to be mindful and act with a sense of awareness.


Moreover, rather than inadvertently reinforcing the faulty idea that people need to choose between taking care of their own needs and the needs of the social and planetary whole, an inspiring sustainability narrative should be cultivated that spreads the uplifting and empowering message that sustainability is about making life better and more beautiful, and that authentic (eudaimonic) human well-being is at the heart of the more sustainable world we collectively aspire to.

And while all of this may still sound a bit abstract, in the following section I will explore an example of what these principles may look like in practice.

Exploring Transformative Solutions for Sustainable Thriving

Having explored some of the insights emerging from the fields of sustainability science, complexity science, and positive psychology, it is noteworthy that there is a certain resonance with respect to the solution-directions they are each pointing in. For example, while from a systems perspective the importance of engaging with the intent of the system is emphasized for engendering systemic transformation, positive psychology similarly points to the need for a paradigm shift, arguing for a transition from a hedonic to an eudaimonic conception of human wellness. Also, from the positive psychology research follows that policies and programs that facilitate more eudaimonic ways of living would comply with some of the key principles as formulated based on sustainability science. For example, such policies and programs would contribute to multiple societal issues simultaneously, ranging from subjective well-being to psychological and physical health and from pro-social attitudes and behaviors to positive social relationships. The shift in emphasis from outcome to process and content are emphasized both in positive psychology as well as in the leadership literature informed by complexity science.

On the basis of the last three sections, we can formulate a tentative list of principles for more commensurate, effective interventions and change strategies. Probably needless to say, this list is provisional and somewhat arbitrary and thus up for debate, further probing, and research. However, on the basis of the current insights, I argue that highly effective change strategies:
  • Engage with the intent or purpose of the system as a whole, and therefore tend to shift mindsets and paradigms, or invite reflection on them.

  • Generate benefits that systemically address multiple issues simultaneously.

  • Are transferable and scalable.

  • Carry limited risks and few negative side effects.

  • Draw in collaboration with diverse stakeholders and viewpoints so solutions and strategies are co-created and co-owned.

  • Invite emergence, through experimentation (probing) and self-organization.

  • Facilitate emerging (bottom-up or societal) projects, ideas, and movements that move in desirable directions.

  • Are inherently positive and rewarding for those who engage in them and thus enhance human well-being in the eudaimonic sense.

  • Support people to strengthen intrinsic goals and values, such as health, (contribution to) community, affiliation and intimacy, personal growth.

  • Support people to behave in autonomous, volitional, or consensual ways, rather than relying on controlled and heteronomous ways.

  • Support people to be mindful and act with a sense of awareness.

  • Cultivate an uplifting narrative that challenges the faulty idea that hedonism leads to happiness and demonstrates fulfilling ways to live a life that is both “good” and “green”; a narrative in which enhancing the ability to “flourish” or “thrive” is at the heart of sustainability.

In this section I briefly explore an example of what could potentially be such a transformative solution pathway, namely, a dietary change toward more plant-based diets. In this process I rely on existing literature, not intending to offer an exhaustive review of the research on this topic but rather to offer insight into what such a transformative approach may look like “in the real world.”

Dietary Change Toward More Plant-Based Diets as Transformative Solution

An example of a potentially transformative solution is a dietary change toward more heavily plant-based diets, thereby moving away from animal-based diets. This is an extremely effective intervention with the potential to address multiple big challenges, including climate change and a host of other environmental problems, the obesity and health epidemic, and large-scale animal suffering, among others.

The food system is responsible for more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions (Vermeulen et al. 2012), of which up to 80% are associated with livestock production (FAO 2006). Experts and policy makers increasingly agree that for the necessary transition to a low-carbon society, change in the Western diet, in particular the reduction of proteins sourced from animals, is a highly potent pathway (De Boer et al. 2016; Popp et al. 2011). A recent study found that a global transition toward low-meat diets could reduce the costs of climate change mitigation by as much as 50 percent by 2050 (Stehfest et al. 2009). Another study found that widespread adoption of a vegetarian diet would bring down emissions by 63% (Springmann et al. 2016). The “outstanding effectiveness” of this climate mitigation option is therefore widely recognized by climate experts (De Boer et al. 2016). Moreover, the reduction of meat consumption and production is effective in addressing a host of other environmental issues, including deforestation, air pollution, water depletion and pollution, and biodiversity loss (FAO 2006).

According to a 2015 Chatham House Report, people in industrialized countries consume on average around twice as much meat as experts deem healthy. In the USA the multiple is nearly three times. High consumption of red and processed meat and low consumption of fruits and vegetables are important diet-related risk factors contributing to early mortality in most regions, while over a billion people are overweight or obese (Lim 2012). Adoption of a healthy diet would therefore not only create healthier populations, but it would also generate over a quarter of the emission reductions needed by 2050 (Wellesley et al. 2015).

Moreover, such a dietary change would substantially lower health-care costs. A recent study found that the monetized value of improvements in health would be comparable with, or even exceed, the (already high monetary) value of environmental benefits, estimating the economic benefits of improving diets to be 1–31 trillion US dollars, which is equivalent to 0.4–13% of global gross domestic product in 2050 (Springmann et al. 2016). The researchers conclude their study saying that “there is a general consensus that dietary change across the globe can have multiple health, environmental, and economic benefits … The size of the projected benefits … should encourage researchers and policy makers to act to improve consumption patterns” (2016, p. 4150).

Next to health, economic, and environmental benefits, there are other advantages of shifting to a low-meat diet, as it would reduce large-scale animal suffering due to factory farming practices. Upon investigation, these practices are often considered deeply unethical because of the wide-ranging suffering they instill, as well as highly problematic in multiple regards, including (but not limited to) the emergence of increasingly antibiotic-resistant strains, large-scale animal diseases such as mad cow disease, and recalls of contaminated meat products (e.g., Eisnitz 1997; Pluhar 2010). Factory farming has been defined as “an industrialized system of producing meat, eggs, and milk in large-scale facilities where the animal is treated as a machine.” However, our current understanding of animal intelligence and behavior underscores that animals cannot be considered, and therefore should not be treated as, machines. A wide range of moral theories agree in declaring current meat production practices to be morally unacceptable (Pluhar 2010).

A dietary change toward more plant-based diets also supports people to connect with nature through the consumption of natural, unprocessed vegetables. In fact, themes such as the wish to return to a more natural lifestyle, distancing from materialistic lifestyles, and reverting to a more meaningful moral life, as well as connectedness to nature, awareness, and purity are found to be motivators for people with more whole-food, organic, and vegetarian dietary styles (Schösler et al. 2012, 2013). Next to such ethical motivators, research has found strong emphasis on aesthetic reasons to eat more plant-based (and often more local or whole-food) diets, including taste, diversity, creativity, and experimentation in the kitchen (“vegetable gastronomy”), and enjoyable social relations due to food (i.e., connection with the local farmer) (Schösler 2012). Together these motivations represent a wide range of positive values that can be associated with plant-based diets (Schösler and Hedlund-de Witt 2012).

Clearly, a dietary change toward plant-based diets generates benefits that contribute to addressing multiple societal issues simultaneously. Moreover, these benefits may mutually reinforce each other. For example, as plant-based diets positively contribute to addressing the health and obesity epidemic, this in its turn positively feeds back to addressing climate change. Currently, the reverse relationship is being observed. That is, as humanity becomes more rotund, more resources are needed to cool, nourish, and transport that extra weight, a trend that accelerates climate change by requiring the consumption of more fossil fuels, which result in more greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, increasing population fatness could have the same implications for global food energy demands (with significant implications for food security, climate change, and sustainability) as an extra half a billion people living on the earth (Irfan 2012). This example thus shows how benefits in terms of weight loss and health reinforce other beneficial feedback loops, such as lower food and energy demands.

This intervention arguably also engages with the food system’s intent, as it invites for a reflection on our relationship with the (natural) world around us, and our aspirations for the “good life,” while offering practical pathways of different ways of relating to nature and animals in particular. In fact, food and consumption experts have argued that food habits are profoundly culturally engrained, with everyday consumption choices enmeshed in a web of non-instrumental motivations, values, emotions, self-conceptions, and cultural associations (Sorin 2010). A shift toward different consumption patterns therefore tends to coincide with a change in values and worldviews and vice versa.

Sociologist Colin Campbell (2007), for example, has signaled a dramatic change in popular beliefs and attitudes toward nature that has occurred over the past 30–50 years, coming to expression in the rise of the animal rights movement, the swing to vegetarianism and the consumption of whole and organic food, the holistic health movement, and the environmental movement itself. In Campbell’s eyes, these are all different manifestations of the idea that some sort of spirit, life force, or higher value is present in all of nature, which therefore needs to be treated with respect or even reverence. This idea has positive implications for environmental behaviors, including attitudes toward meat eating. Animals are increasingly considered in terms of their well-being and rights and seen as sentient “fellow creatures” instead of merely “food” (Verdonk 2009).

This intervention can also be argued to be transferable and scalable, as, from a physical-geographical perspective, a transition to lower meat consumption can in principle be done almost anywhere. In fact, in most of the Western world, this transition means going back to consumption patterns that were the norm until the 1960s. However, changing deeply engrained cultural habits is challenging – a challenge that could be argued to be inherent in attempts to generate transformational change through accessing deep leverage points. Simultaneously, as Colin Campbell and others have argued, a cultural shift in this direction is already happening and thus can be facilitated and supported, rather than needing to be imposed in a top-down manner (Schösler and Hedlund-de Witt 2012). Moreover, a dietary change toward more plant-based diets could be scaled up through integration in educational programs and contexts, as well as in work places and institutions.

The risks and unintended consequences associated with this intervention are arguably low. While some nutritional deficiencies are associated with completely vegan diets, this risk can be mediated through an emphasis on lowering meat and increasing plant consumption, rather than emphasizing the need for a transition toward completely vegetarian or even vegan diets.

Also, the benefits attained by changing toward more plant-based diets will not only be experienced on the collective level but on the individual as well. This means this intervention generates benefits that are inherently positive and rewarding, as it enhances human health and can contribute to weight loss, is associated with a range of positive ethical and aesthetic values, from connectedness to nature to creativity and diversity in the kitchen, and reduces health-care costs. In that sense it clearly supports people to strengthen intrinsic goals and values, such as health, (contribution to) community, affiliation and intimacy, and personal growth.

Moreover, the intervention may support people to be more mindful and act with a greater sense of awareness, with respect to the origin and production of their food, their relationship to nature and animals, and their own sense of health and well-being. Although it depends on implementation and communication strategies, this intervention or solution pathway has the potential to support people to behave in autonomous, volitional, or consensual ways – that is, people should be supported to make the best choice for themselves, considering all factors at play, rather than being coerced or habituated a certain way (i.e., through meat tax or meat subsidies on the one hand or oppressive cultural norms and practices on the other).

Importantly, for such an intervention to be “aspirational,” it should challenge often deeply engrained, cultural ideas that a fulfilling meal has to contain meat and portray compelling alternative meal options that are not only more climate-responsible and environment-friendly but also healthy, tasteful, and attractive in their own right. The international food awareness organization Proveg may offer an example of how such a more positive and inspiring narrative could look like, as their main emphasis is on the five, positive benefits attained from eating a predominantly plant-based diet, as they portray such a diet as “pro-health,” “pro-animals,” “pro-environment,” “pro-justice,” and “pro-taste” (see

Discussion and Conclusion

As argued in the introduction, we need to conceptualize sustainability in more positive, aspirational terms, potentially understanding it as “the possibility that human and other forms of life will flourish on the earth forever,” rather than merely as a series of complex problems we need to overcome, or the reduction of unsustainability. Arguably, thinking about more life-enhancing, transformative solutions itself involves a paradigm shift, as it implies a move away from disciplinary, narrow, instrumental problem-solving and technological fixes to interventions that appreciate the profound interconnectedness between human well-being and the flourishing of larger natural systems.

Drawing on insights from sustainability science, complexity science, and positive psychology, I argue that more effective and transformative solutions are characterized by certain principles, which I summarize in the section on “Exploring Transformative Solutions for Sustainable Thriving”. This list of principles is explicitly of a suggestive, rather than a conclusive, nature. My intention is that it may fulfill a role in stimulating our thinking, research, and debates about how to most optimally and constructively respond to our sustainability challenges.

The major insights from each of these three fields with respect to addressing our profoundly systemic, highly complex, and ultimately human-created planetary challenges can be summarized as follows.

Sustainability science urges us to orient toward whole-system solutions and “multi-problem-solvers” that creatively make use of the profoundly intertwined, systemic natures of our planetary challenges. In engaging “deep leverage points” such as the intent and design characteristics of the involved systems, change will be more transformational and impact multiple issues and systems at once. Design efforts should attempt to generate virtuous feedback loops, so that positive impacts are accelerated.

Complexity science teaches us that appropriate responses to unpredictable, multidimensional, and nonlinear challenges are characterized by more participative, distributed, and collective leadership styles as well as design and development processes that emphasize collaboration across diversity, experimentation, and the active allowance of emergence. From this perspective, hierarchical, planning-based, “command and control” approaches are fundamentally unable to address the complexity inherent in our sustainability challenges.

The empirical findings of positive psychology demonstrate that through designing our solutions in such a way that they enhance the human ability to thrive “thriveability”, rather than just “problem-solve” environmental issues, we harness the powerful, intrinsic human motivation for a better life. We also reap the multiple, positive benefits that flourishing human beings offer to society or the world as a whole, including generally more social and sustainable behaviors and attitudes. Moreover, this direct connection to human flourishing could be the foundation for a more positive and empowering sustainability narrative that mobilizes large-scale engagement and support for sustainable transformation.

Subsequently I have used these principles to analyze a potential, real-world example of such a transformative solution pathway, focusing on the widely acknowledged (environmental and climate mitigation) potential of a dietary shift toward more heavily plant-based diets. Through discussing this example, I have attempted to illustrate what transformative solutions may look like, rather than promoting any practice or intervention in particular. Thus, a dietary change is merely an example (albeit a potentially powerful one) of how we can start to think in more bold ways about intervention design for sustainability, inviting a paradigm shift in our understanding of these issues, as well as of our thinking around the transition pathways that are needed in response.

Now I would like to turn to a few caveats and considerations with respect to the approach taken in this chapter.

In the first place, as stated in the introduction, transformative solutions are not easy nor necessarily quick, or obvious. In fact, one of their features is that despite their benefits and/or great potential for transformational change, they are frequently overlooked, downplayed, or dismissed. This makes sense as they fall outside the dominant modes of thinking, which is precisely what makes them so potent. That is, they invite for, and are based on, a paradigm shift, on a different set of assumptions and values, on a different worldview.

We see this clearly in the sustainability debate with respect to curbing meat consumption. While energy generation, transportation, and buildings have long been a target for governments, businesses, and campaigners looking to reduce emissions, the impact from food production has often been left out (Harvey 2016). Often, interference with what people eat is considered too personal, intimate, and/or culturally challenging. Especially when we consider the outstanding potential of a global meat reduction for addressing climate change, the focus seems to have been almost exclusively on technological solutions, particularly in the realm of direct energy production and use. Analyzed through the lens of a systems perspective, this means that the more obvious, direct parameters and feedbacks are used for affecting change, while the deeper intent and design of the system are overlooked, thereby ignoring a substantial potential for sustainable transformation.

Another consideration is that complex systems are, well, complex, which means that many influencing factors, feedback loops, and delays are often uncertain, or unknown. How the benefits of transformational interventions interact with each other will often be hard to predict. My aim in this chapter has therefore not been to make hard claims in that regard but rather to demonstrate that potentially we can start to use system dynamics to work for us. That is, while there is widespread acknowledgment of the existence and dangers of vicious cycles (e.g., in the context of climate change), we may be in need of a more comprehensive understanding and acknowledgment of how we may be well served by incorporating the potentiality of generating virtuous cycles into our thinking about sustainable solutions.

Thirdly, with my choice for the exemplary solution of a dietary change, I have opted for an intervention that is particularly low-tech and behavioral change oriented in its nature. This is not to suggest that solution pathways should always share that orientation. In fact, it would be naïve to overlook the vast potential for sustainable transformation from more technologically oriented solutions. However, it should also be acknowledged that for technological solutions to be optimally utilized, political will and support from the public at large are generally conditional. Increasingly even “technological optimists” admit that technology in itself, without facilitating changes in lifestyles and consumption patterns, will most likely fall short of offering the solutions we need – particularly in a world with an expanding population, and poorer groups gradually shifting to environmentally more burdensome lifestyle patterns. Since the sustainability debate has been dominated by technological solutions, highlighting the transformative potential of low-tech, low-risk, and highly accessible solutions that more directly engage the human dimensions is therefore arguably of great relevance.

Contemplating the insights of these three different and relatively young fields of research may enable and empower us to think in more comprehensive, bold, and inspirational ways about responses to the myriad crises and issues we are faced with. In fact, in our world today it seems like nothing less than profoundly transformative solutions will help us forge new pathways for more sustainable and fulfilling ways of being on our beautiful planet – pathways that are so enticing and full of potential that people will want to join and participate, simply because these new ways (of living) promise more authentic joy and fulfillment. In the words of Buckminster Fuller, an American architect, systems theorist, and inventor: “You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.”

And as he also said: “We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.” May it be so.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Copernicus Institute of Sustainable DevelopmentUtrecht UniversityUtrechtThe Netherlands

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